After two successful touchdowns on asteroid Ryugu, Japan’s Hayabusa-2 mission was scheduled to deploy a third “visitor” to the surface of the 3,000-foot space rock later this month.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the next probe to swing by the “Dragon Palace” asteroid — as Ryugu is called in Japanese — will be the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft itself. The probe was due to descend on the rocky terrain of the diamond-shaped asteroid in late October, touching down on a 300-foot-wide area near Ryugu’s equator.
However, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has decided to push back the landing by a few months, and is currently targeting a 2019 touchdown.
According to Phys.org, the Japanese space agency announced that the Hayabusa-2 probe will be deployed in “late January” at the earliest.
The reason for the delay is the rocky, pitted terrain on the surface the asteroid — too jagged to ensure a smooth landing for the relatively hefty spacecraft, which is about the size of a large fridge.
Although all three asteroid landings have been carefully planned by the mission’s team, the latest data shows that Ryugu’s surface is more rugged than initially expected. This means that the touchdown of the Hayabusa-2 probe — which is considerably larger than the 2.4-pound MINERVA-II1 rovers and the 22-pound MASCOT lander deployed on Ryugu in September and early October, respectively — has become a lot more challenging.
“The mission… is to land without hitting rocks,” JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda said in a statement. “We had expected the surface would be smooth… but it seems there’s no flat area.”
During the September 21 landing of the twin MINERVA-II1 rovers, the ONC-T camera on board the Hayabusa-2 mothership managed to snag the clearest image of Ryugu ever taken since the spacecraft reached the asteroid’s orbit in late June.
Captured from an altitude of about 64 meters (roughly 210 feet), this is “the highest-resolution photograph obtained of the surface of Ryugu” and reveals that the asteroid is completely strewn with large boulders, JAXA reported on September 29.
“We learned that that asteroid is not friendly to us, so [landing is] not as easy as we had supposed when we were planning the mission,” Masaki Fujimoto, Deputy Director General at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said in late August — when the space agency designated the landing spots for the entire Hayabusa-2 mission.
Aside from the Hayabusa-2 probe, the mission is slated to deploy one more spacecraft on the surface of Ryugu — namely another tiny rover similar to the ones that have already made the trip down to the asteroid. Dubbed MINERVA-II2, the small spacecraft will touch down on the carbon-rich space rock next year, per a previous Inquisitr report.